The End of Days Is Coming — Just Not to China

Why apocalyptic fiction and film haven’t caught on in the Middle Kingdom.

“In Chinese science fiction, extraterrestrial civilizations were usually imagined as benevolent and wonderful,” Liu Cixin, China’s most celebrated science fiction author, wrote in 2014. “This set off the contrarian in me, and I decided to imagine a worst-case scenario.” Liu’s Three-Body trilogy, the first two books of which have been recently published in English, differs from most Chinese sci-fi in that it’s, well, dark: Aliens are coming to destroy the world.

Liu’s series — the best-selling sci-fi novels in China in decades — has attracted much attention both domestically and internationally: The White House announced last year that President Barack Obama was reading The Three-Body Problem, the first in the trilogy, as part of his Christmas-break vacation reading list. The reality Liu imagines is a “terrible situation, a worst-case scenario,” Liu told NPR. At the end of Liu’s series, aliens extinguish the Earth and the sun. In Chinese fiction, “destroying the world is fine,” Liu told me in an interview. But destroying China is not.

The American canon is rich in apocalyptic literature. It boasts Jack London’s 1912 The Scarlet Plague, a tale of 2073 San Francisco after disease has eradicated much of humanity; Ray Bradbury’s 1950 short-story collection, The Martian Chronicles, about the colonization of Mars by Americans fleeing the Earth’s atomic wasteland; and 2006’s The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s novel of a father and son pushing a shopping cart across a denuded hellscape, among many others. But while the Chinese have on occasion written apocalyptic fiction, with few exceptions its authors can never bear — or dare — to destroy their country.

Probably the closest the Middle Kingdom comes to cratering in Chinese literature is a cautionary tale of corruption and incompetence. In 1991, as aftershocks from the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre continued to reverberate, the Beijing-based writer Wang Lixiong published the novel Yellow Peril. The novel imagines the country in 1998: Economic reform fails, China descends into civil war, and the instability forces hundreds of millions of Chinese to flee to Russia, Europe, and the United States. The aftershocks of Tiananmen, Wang predicted, would destroy the ruling Chinese Communist Party and perhaps take China down with it. (After the novel was published in Chinese in Canada, police arrested Wang, releasing him soon after with a warning.) In an article published roughly a decade after the book’s publication, Wang apologized for being wrong. “If you were grading Yellow Peril on its powers of divination, it deserves a ‘zero,’” he wrote. “In what era have men of learning not worried that China will perish?” China, he belatedly realized, has always survived. “Throughout several thousand years of history, the boat keeps moving forward. How could it hit a reef and sink today?”

The irony is stark. The United States is a stable, raucous democracy, whose only real flirtation with chaos was the bloody American Civil War. China’s 5,000 years of history, on the other hand, are lousy with apocalypses: cycles of destruction and rebirth, plateaus of peace and prosperity punctured by eras of stagnation and disease, of natural and man-made disasters robbing the rulers of the Mandate of Heaven and catalyzing wrenching dynastic changes.

In U.S. film and literature, however, it seems like every month flesh-craving zombies attack the White House and destroy civilization as we know it. Independence Day: Resurgence, now playing in theaters, and which features aliens wiping out much of the Eastern Seaboard, is only the most recent example. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the United States in pop culture has been poisoned, frozen, burned, and electrocuted; it’s been overrun by werewolves, invaded by aliens, devastated by plague, and brought low by Nazi cyborgs. Especially in this decade of uncertainty, disaster stories reign. In the prosperous and stable 1990s, “no one wanted zombies,” Max Brooks, the author of World War Z, told me. “When things are good, no one wants to see the world ending,” Brooks, whose book imagines zombies overrunning the world, said. “When things are bad, Americans need a place to put all those apocalyptic anxieties.”

Part of the reason Chinese writers haven’t written fiction about the destruction of their country involves religion: China does not follow the Judeo-Christian tradition that foretells the apocalypse and rapture. “The Christian tradition is linear. There is an end, a judgment day,” said Mingwei Song, an expert on Chinese literature at Wellesley College. “Whereas in China, there is a circle, a change of dynasty, but not a change of the world.” The Analects of Confucius, the closest thing Chinese civilization has to a founding text, advocates harmony, continuity, and order, and the strong Buddhist and Taoist traditions call for an escape from society. “If the human world becomes too corrupted to live in, you can always withdraw to nature,” said Sheng Yun, a contributing editor at the Shanghai Review of Books. Instead of wishing for a great fire or flood to cleanse corruption or immorality, as persists in the Western tradition, the Chinese reaction is to retreat to an often fantastical earthly paradise, she said. (That’s not to say China lacks a substantial fantasy tradition: The mercurial Monkey King is the protagonist of 1592’s Journey to the West, one of the country’s most famous novels.)

But while China may lack a Judgment Day, its literary tradition is ripe with doomsday prophets and dreamers who reached deep into Chinese history and society to criticize its present — from the Taoists to Mao Zedong to China’s burgeoning sci-fi novelists who satirize Communist China with their dystopian visions. The Chinese don’t need zombies to destroy their country. Their history’s ghosts are devastating enough.

Culture, chaos, and rebirth

The earliest work about a Chinese apocalypse may be The Divine Incantations Scripture, a Taoist meditation thought to have been written as a response to the chaos of 4th-century China. The Taoists, a religious sect formed a few hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ and preaching allegiance to the “way,” or the natural order of the universe, were worried about their society. Some wanted to return to the peace and stability of the Han dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220), widely seen as a golden age of peace and prosperity. But like all dynasties, its rulers eventually grew corrupt, the people rebelled, and a series of wars splintered the country. “Epidemic demons are killing people,” wrote the text’s unknown authors. “The world abounds in vice and lacks goodness.”

The text, however, was not published in full until the early 10th century, just after the end of the Tang dynasty, another golden age. The scripture’s editor was Du Guangting, a prominent Taoist scholar so outwardly supportive of the regime that Emperor Wang Jian awarded him the prestigious title of “grand counselor with golden seal and purple ribbon.” The tyrant Wang claimed his kingdom was yet another high point in history. But Du’s publication of apocalyptic visions of an earlier era was a subtle dissent. The people and their ruler must follow the Tao, the text says. Otherwise, “the great ghost king will come and annihilate all of them.”

Probably the most famous line about the destruction of China comes from the poet Du Fu, born in 712, at the height of the Tang dynasty. Changan, the dynasty’s capital where Du lived in his later years, was at the time the world’s largest city, boasting more than 1 million inhabitants. But the 755-763 An Lushan Rebellion, an eponymous coup by a formerly trusted general, snuffed out that prosperity. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker calls that rebellion the worst disaster in history; it may have led to the deaths of two-thirds of China’s population. (At the time, that was fully one-sixth of the world’s total, equivalent to war and famine killing more than 1.2 billion people today.) “The country is shattered, but river and mountains remained,” Du wrote in the poem Spring Gaze. “Spring drowns the city in wild grass and trees, a time so bad, even the flowers rain tears.” Du’s grass and trees evoke the regenerative quality of destruction, not simply an end, as sociology professor James Aho wrote in an essay in the 1997 collection Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem: “It is also and more importantly a beginning, an uncovering, an illumination unveiled precisely at the very moment of the greatest darkness and danger.” Du’s five character first line — literally “country shattered mountain river here” — also speaks to the permanence of nature that even An’s marauding troops couldn’t destroy.

The depredations of the An Lushan Rebellion soon ceased, eventually paving the way for the glory of the Song dynasty — whose prosperous government issued the first paper money — but which, weakened by infighting, fell to the invading Mongols. The 13th-century poet Yuan Haowen, attempting to collect a history of a crumbling society, appointed himself the “official of wild grain” — a title meaning he had to gather material from “tales and events told by common folk,” according to the scholar Stephen West. Yuan was the best-known writer of a genre known as “death and destruction” poems that spoke to the destruction of Chinese society by the Mongols — the first foreigners to rule all of the nation. “Cold seas violently flow,” he wrote. “Myriad states become fish,” splitting off and swimming into a great ocean of chaos. And as the Manchus overthrew the Ming dynasty in the 17th century, after the country suffered a series of devastating floods and famines, the philosopher Gu Yanwu wrote about the distinction between the demise of a nation and the fall of tianxia — all under heaven, writes the Wellesley scholar Mingwei Song in his book Young China. Dynasties can rise and fall, and society survives. But if all under heaven collapses, Song wrote, paraphrasing Gu, “humans become beasts.”


To start anew, destroy the old

And so it went, from century to century, until another low point — the falling of the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century — saw a group of reformers who urged China to awaken from its chaos. Lu Xun, the country’s most prominent 20th-century writer, famously saw China as an “iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation.” (Society is dying, but the country would survive.) Lu’s writings on the need for change in China influenced Mao Zedong, who bought into the idea of constructing a future mortgaged on the present. Perhaps more than any other leader in history, Mao sought to bring the “end of days” to his country — so that a new one could rise up from its ashes. In other words, Mao believed he could create an ideal new China — by destroying the current one.

Of course, a greater influence on Mao was Karl Marx, from whom Mao adapted the idea that when Chinese society came to embrace communism, it would break the cycle of history. Some messianic cults in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam believe in the necessity of a great fury of cleansing violence to purify the earth for the Messiah. Similarly, Mao destroyed the old order to make way for the new: After winning the civil war in 1949, he oversaw the death of millions of landlords, rich peasants, and sympathizers of the defeated Nationalists.

Communism is an apocalypse novelist’s dream. It’s a shame that during its heyday, no one was allowed to portray it in fiction. During the anarchic 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, and especially the demonic 1958-1961 Great Leap Forward, Mao rent the fabric of society. In the Cultural Revolution, citizens decided that red traffic lights could no longer mean “stop,” but, because red is the color of the revolution, had to mean “go.” Children murdered their parents, employees revenged themselves on their bosses, and students killed their teachers. During the Great Leap Forward, an estimated 45 million people died of starvation, overwork, and beatings, as Mao urged the country to transform itself into a collectivist industrial machine. Because of the ideological controls of the era, the best contemporaneous description of its apocalyptic monstrosities can be found in the chairman’s poems. “Gunfire licks the heavens, shells pit the earth,” he wrote in 1965, one year before launching the Cultural Revolution. “The world is being capsized.”

A Chinese man walks past a poster for the Hollywood disaster movie "2012" at a subway station in Beijing on December 20, 2012. (WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)

The new wave

China’s dystopian writers didn’t arrive en masse until after the pivotal year of 1989, later than the West by a few centuries. (Li Jie’s 1999 novel The End of Red Chinese Dynasty is one example.) But the history from which they draw stretches back millennia. “If we pull back far enough to view human history from a more elevated perspective, we can see that society builds up, invents, creates utopias—sketches of perfect, imagined futures,” Chen Qiufan, one of China’s most promising young dystopian novelists, wrote in a blog post, “and then, inevitably, the utopias collapse, betray their ideals, and turn into dystopias.”

The miasma of censorship enveloping China still prevents true apocalyptic satire of the Mao years — or the present, for that matter. Wu Yan, a professor at Beijing Normal University and an expert in science fiction, told me that, generally speaking, works about “the destruction of China or Beijing [are] not really allowed to be published.” Chen was more direct: “Everyone avoids the word ‘doomsday’ in modern China,” he told me.

And yet, there have been some attempts. The journalist Han Song’s 2000 novel 2066: Red Star Over America sees the United States riven by anarchy under the thumb of a revolutionary dictator. A Chinese genius wanders through the pockmarked United States, trying to save it. It’s subtle — necessary when writing in China about the sensitive subject of the Cultural Revolution — but the madness of 2066 America reminds one a lot of another country, 100 years earlier.

There is something viscerally satisfying in watching your country fall apart. “Most apocalyptic themes have a sense of reckoning, which is a human need,” said Sheng of the Shanghai Review of Books. And with these kind of movies, there’s often a great “visual impact and thrill.” There’s something cathartic about the chaos, something peaceful about the post-apocalyptic quiet. American apocalyptic movies are popular in China, Wu said — and those that show China saving the world, like the film 2012, doubly so. And yet the apocalyptic movies screened in China are all U.S. imports. “An American audience can watch a disaster movie and say, ‘We have an incompetent president, or a deadlocked Congress, and we’ll vote them out,’” Brooks said. In China, it’s far too sensitive for the Communist Party to be criticized, even implicitly, for the country’s destruction.

Of course, that’s not to say the party is blameless. In a discussion forum on the popular Chinese question-and-answer website Zhihu, an anonymous commenter asked why China has so few apocalyptic movies and fiction. “One day your house could be torn down, and you’d be left with no compensation, nothing. Does that count as the apocalypse,” another commenter replied. For those at the bottom of Chinese society, life is about survival, this commenter added. And apocalyptic fiction is about as useful to them as “knitting wool.”

The end has no end 

Like in the United States, there are thousands of Chinese sci-fi novels published online that barely get noticed. Liu, the author of The Three-Body Problem, said it’s likely there’s some apocalyptic fiction online where China gets destroyed, but he’s never come across it. For him, the destruction of the Earth and sun at the end of his Three-Body trilogy “just made sense,” he said. But humanity survives. “It wasn’t that pessimistic,” he said.

Of China’s extremely small canon of apocalyptic literature, Wang Lixiong’s book is the bleakest. “Yellow Peril was too dark,” Chen told me. “I got depressed for quite a long time after reading it. That all this so-called 5,000 years of history would end up in this very cynical way — us behaving like cavemen, struggling for living in the jungle.”

Chen’s own dystopian contribution, The Waste Tide, is less pessimistic, but still dark: It tells of a village in wealthy 2020’s China where a technologically proficient group of cyberpunks enslave an underclass of humans from poor regions of Guangdong province, forcing them to sift through toxic recycling materials. Chen says China’s immense wealth gap and a trip to a nearby impoverished village influenced him. “Different groups of people in modern China have their own vanities, their own struggles,” he said. “I want people to see more than their own class and their own life.”

Similarly 2009’s The Fat Years, by the Hong Kong writer Chan Koonchung, sees the Chinese dominant and happy in 2013 and the United States reeling from a financial crisis — but no one in China can remember what happened in February 2011 (it turns out the communists sprinkled the water supply with amnesia-inducing drugs).

Wang, however, can’t shake the feeling that disaster may be imminent. “Whether what I wrote about will come to pass, I cannot answer,” Wang wrote in his blog. “We can only wait for ‘the will of heaven’ — if China is not supposed to be destroyed, the elements it needs will appear.… Even if the mythical power beasts that rule China can still hold onto power for another 30 years, it’s just a bubble in the long river of history.”

In other words, the country will one day lie in ruins, but the mountains and rivers will remain.

Top Image Credit: VCG via Getty Images

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. (@isaacstonefish)